Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Creating, Summoning, or Revealing

A while back Sabrina made a request for characterization posts. It got me thinking about where my characters come from. There is definitely something in characterization that feels a little out of my control, almost like the characters just come. I know real helpful.

Throughout my life I’ve known hundreds of people and seen hundreds of shows and read hundreds of books. There is a lot to this writing stuff that comes to me on a subconscious level (and a lot that doesn’t), and character development is definitely one of them.

A while back I found this blog by Alexandra Sokoloff. Alexandra was a screenwriter but now writes novels. She brings tricks of the trade from the film industry to writing novels, and she is brilliant. Seriously, she gives amazing advice, well worth losing a day or two in reading through her posts.

Anyway, she gives some great advice on characterization that sums up my feelings on the matter.

“I have this sense that EVERY real writer already has their own process for creating character, or I’d even say calling character, because that’s more what it seems like to me: you create an inviting space for characters to come, and hope to God they show up. And I don’t ever want to do or say anything that might screw that process up for anyone.”

I certainly don’t want to mess with what already works, but I will share my process, and hopefully it will be helpful or at least interesting.

Character is the story; the story is the character."

I’ve heard this quote a lot on writing sites, but I have no idea where it originated. I don’t think it is true for all stories, but it is for the vast majority of the ones I read and the ones I write.

I develop characters, plot, and world building all at the same time. To me they are all intricately connected, and they all entwine with each other in a very unique way to form the story.

But the most important component to me is the character. Give me an interesting character or one that I love, and I will follow that character anywhere.

I usually start with an idea, a premise, an interesting scenario and then I start asking questions. Just like Melanie.

For example: This thread on hatrack made me start thinking about divine characters. How I would create conflict with a character that is all knowing, all seeing, and for the most part, all powerful. So I started thinking. Being a parent, the first thought that popped into my mind is how hard it is to watch my children fail. Watching them struggle to read a book, fall over on a bike, but sometimes they must fail at in order to succeed. Still it is hard to watch knowing that you can tell them the words they don’t know or hold on the back of the bike to prevent the crash. But I need higher stakes than a goddess (of course I chose a goddess) watching her people fail. I need death.

So I have a goddess who needs to allow the destruction of a village for the greater good. But I want this to be personal, so she needs to be there, living among the people in disguise. So this village is very devout, and she feels the need to be there with them, to help them face their death because of their unshakable faith in her. But living with them, makes her see them differently, love them on a different level, and now she is not sure if she can let them die when she has the power to save them, even though she knows it needs to be done.

There are still a million questions, and I’m far from being done, but I can see her character emerging and the conflict, the plot, and the world all at the same time. They are all connected.

How dare they disobey me

It always starts with my characters emerging because the plot demands them to be a certain way. For example: I need the goddess to live among her people, so she can’t be an arrogant and selfish. She needs to be loving. But I need her to be willing to sacrifice these people for the greater good, so there has to be a cool, logical side to her too.

In the beginning, this process works, the character and plot nicely develop together, but at some point they always seem to diverge. My plot needs my character to act a certain way, but the character is now so well-defined that she won’t just do what needs to be done. This is when I realize that I have a well-developed character.

“It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live.” John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman

It almost feels mystical and I can see how some people would see it that way, but to me it is very logical.

Real people are what they say, think, and do. After fifty or so pages of a character saying, thinking, and doing certain things, they become real, and they can no longer be slaves to the plot. The character has arrived, and now the plot must be tweaked to fit the character.

All of this is really intuitive for me, so I don’t know how to explain how it happens or how I know when it happens. It’s like knowing a person in real life, and knowing when they are acting like themselves and when something is off.

Some Practical Advice

It isn’t always instinct and mysticism for me. Sometimes I do have to flesh out a character, and there are some tricks that I use.

  1. Acting- Alexandra Sokoloff suggests taking an acting class to help with characterization, and I agree with her (you don’t have to actually take an acting class, but you could read a book or articles on it).

    I was into drama in high school (I was even in a few plays). I really believe that there is no better way to understand characters than trying to portray one. It makes you think deeply about what makes us all different, from how we think to mannerisms.

    A lot of it comes down to motivation. What the character wants, what she is willing to do to get it, and what she isn’t willing to do. It isn’t about what her favorite color is or what her favorite song is or whether or not she is good at math. Don’t get me wrong, these details add depth to the character, but they do not define her. Motivation does.

  2. Backstory, backstory, backstory- Whenever I just can’t get a character to work. I always go to their backstory even though it rarely ends up on the page (although I’m sure Sarah will tell me that more of it should).

    To me, people are not a list of character traits, but defined by their experiences. So I always think about their childhood, their family and friends, and try to discover those big defining moments. Once I understand where they come from, I understand what they will do.

That is all I got. I know it’s not much, but hopefully it helped some. I’ve always been curious about how others flesh out characters, so please feel free to share. Are your characters created, summoned, or revealed?


Monday, January 30, 2012

Covers on the Cheap


So instead of writing this week, I decided to try out the free cover maker website linked above. I made these covers in a few hours spending...no money.

Which proves that I'm cheap.

And that I have too much time on my hands.

Essentially, it proves I'm a mom.

Sarah's is my favorite... Although it's cropped weird. SoOo cheesy.


Here is the recipe for making an awesome cover.

First, write an awesome title.
 (This is harder than it looks. Check http://theprosers.blogspot.com/2011/12/wait-does-this-need-title-too.html for tips.)

 B, search royalty free websites for an awesome picture. There's a good chance you could get a stock photo that would work perfectly for free, or less than 15 dollars.

Next, if you can't find a good photo, you can always check out deviantart.com. If you find an artist you like, there's a good chance they might design a cover for you for the cheap, or even just for the publicity.

Fourthly, once you have a plan, and/or a picture/ and or just some free time, check out http://www.myecovermaker.com/ecover-design. Play around with it. After a few fun fake covers, you will learn what you are doing, I promise. It's super, super, easy/free. You have to become a member to upload pictures,( which costs less than ten dollars) but it is a heck of a lot easier to use than Indesign, or Photoshop, or Gimp. It's very point and click. If you can't figure out how to make it flat, check the upper right hand corner in the finalize stage where it say's 2D. It took me a few days to figure out how to do that.

There you go. Simple. I've just saved you several hundreds of dollars.

You're welcome.

Good luck with it!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Romantic Subplots, Part 1

“And now I’m looking at you,” he said, “and you’re asking me if I still want you, as if I could stop loving you.  As if I would want to give up the thing that makes me stronger than anything else ever has." (Jace Wayland; The City of Glass by Cassandra Clare)

This topic has been on my mind for a long time. Thankfully, I started writing this post early in the week. I kept writing...and writing...and writing...and realized that I've got a lot more to say than I can possibly fit into one post. So let's just call this Part One in a series of five (?). 

We could call it Subplot Saturday. Or Saturday Smoochies. Or even Saturday Steaminess... 

Yeah. So I'll keep working on that.

I'm going to share one rule a week with you for the next five weeks. Five weeks may seem like an unbearably long time to wait. But never fear. By the end, you'll be able to write a love story that people will tumbl about for years.
Caution: Music will start if you click on this link!!!

What is your idea of the perfect love story?

I suppose the answer to that question is different for everyone. Personally, I don't like the love story to be the key element of the plot. But although I want the love story to take a back seat to the action, make no mistake: I read books for the romance. And I'm not alone.

Take the bestselling series The Hunger Games as an example. Katniss's fight to protect her family and keep herself alive should have completely overshadowed  the love triangle between Katniss, Gayle and Peeta. But in the days before Mockingjay came out, what was everyone talking about?

Rule #1:  An exciting story should drive your plot, not the romance

“Really? Are you going to ask him to be your partner?" Isabelle asked. "It's like a cotillion, this partner's business, except with killing." 
"So, exactly like a cotillion," said Simon. (From The City of Glass, by Cassandra Clare)
I'll read hundreds of pages for one paragraph that makes my heart flutter. In fact, I submit that the hundreds of pages are a necessary component. This isn't the "Wow, you're hot. All we need is a good excuse to make out," romance. The kind of love story I'm talking about is the one that says, "I know everything about you--your strengths, your weaknesses. We're already an amazing team, and I want it to last forever. And by the way, you ARE hot, and I've been waiting way too long for a good excuse to make out."

My first attempt to tell a story like that was a bit of a failure. That's because I got so caught up in the whole love story that I let it take over. It's a perfectly valid basis for a book, and it was a lot of fun to write, but it's really not what I was going for. What I want is a story that would be worthwhile and fun even without a hint of romance. The romance is the icing on the cake.

If I was a math geek like Maryann, this is the place where I would build a really scientific looking graph showing the fragile relationship between the exciting story going on in your character's lives and their emerging feelings for each other. In the beginning, the driving action has nothing to do with the romance. As with every other sub-plot, the goal is to lay the foundation, so that the reader is not pulled out of the story when things start heating up. As the book progresses, the ratio between action and romance will start to shift, but the action still propels the plot. If anything, the romance complicates it.

When you've stretched out the getting to know you phase as long as you can, and its  finally time to get to the romance, there's nothing like a little adrenaline to make a romantic scene shine. Don't believe me? Watch this:

Of course, your characters don't have to be in a battle to the death when they declare their undying allegiance. They can wait until after, if you want.

*This is my daughter's tumblr. Although she doesn't tumbl about one specific love story, she follows several people who do. My favorite is odair-in-the-underwear.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Kids and Imagination: Reading vs. Television

Go ahead and say it.
I'm demonizing television.
There are nefarious trades to be made, trying to combine writing and motherhood. This is a story of the dark side. The sinister underbelly of the writing life. One mother’s desperate, shame-filled dependence on help from a poorly screened, under-qualified emergency babysitter.

You may know this shady childcare provider by the name of “television.”

It happened the summer before last, when Kid #1 was six. Kid #2 had fallen asleep after a morning-long tantrum. I was desperate to finish a writing assignment for a class. So when Kid #1 asked to watch TV, I caved. We’d had a rough morning, leaving him in that hard-to-please mood where everything was bound to be a battle. I could have suggested he read a book or play Legos. But I was desperate for some uninterrupted writing time, and I chose the low road: Netflix.

The streaming selection seemed abysmal until I stumbled upon  James and the Giant Peach. Everyone loves Roald Dahl! It’s animated! It’s about a peach! And a boy named James! Game on.

So I haven't read the book
or seen the movie.
Come on. It's a peach.
How is that not a safe bet?
Kid #1 slumped on the couch. I hunched over my laptop on the armchair. The movie played. I edited like mad. He was mesmerized, if the fact that he forgot to whine for snacks was any indication. I hyperfocused, he vegetated, and we found a homeostasis that seemed to work.

John doesn’t like me showing the kids anything he hasn’t pre-screened, and with good reason: I tune out boring stuff better than anyone I know. For me, kids’ television usually counts as boring stuff. (When I was pregnant with Kid #2, John suggested he play the Thomas the Tank Engine theme song in labor, as it takes only a hint of Thomas to render me comatose. In the end we went with the more natural soundtrack of screaming. So much for epidurals.)

James and the Giant Peach was like soft classical Muzak in the background, actually enhancing my concentration.

When Kid #1 shifted position for the first time in eighty minutes, I realized the credits were rolling. Then I took in the sight of tears streaming down his innocent but angry little cheeks.

“How could you make me watch that?” he demanded, trembling. “It was really scary!”

His body started shaking with huge sobs, which he punctuated with proclamations that he would have nightmares forever. I held him on my lap and planned my acceptance speech for the Worst Mother in History award.

I should have known. Director Henry Selick seems to have his finger on the pulse of my child's deepest fears. Earlier that year, a poster for Coraline had sparked months of Kid #1 talking about how much he didn’t want to watch that movie. He would choose random times to remind us that he wasn't ever watching Coraline—in the car, at dinner, ten minutes after I’d put him to bed. This was a good clue that I should stay away from things Selick directed, but I wasn’t thinking clearly that day.

Obviously, he should have watched Jimmy Neutron.

Or, okay, read a book. Or gone outside or something. Whatever. Let’s not dwell on what should have been.

The book that made
reading an addiction.
At the time of the Peach Debacle, Kid #1 was a newly independent reader. He’d dabbled in Magic Tree House books before getting hooked on The Secrets of Droon, by Tony Abbott. It's about the same reading level, but less formulaic and with a richer and more exciting fantasy world. He tore through them until the 13th one, then stopped partway through. Something about that book scared him. He didn’t get upset or have any nightmares. He just moved on to Dragonbreath.

I kept meaning to read the book myself to find out what scared him, but I never did. If I’m not attentive enough to watch a show while I’m in the room with my son or to notice him trembling with fear for an hour and a half, I’m probably not getting around to reading everything he reads.

Cut to a few months ago. At some point he’d gone back to Droon and finished the series, no longer scared. He’d also finished the whole Harry Potter series, and Dragonbreath, and Diary of Wimpy Kid, and Big Nate, and at least a hundred others I haven’t kept track of. He reads his favorites over and over and over again. When he found an old copy Charlie and the Chocloate Factory on our bookshelf, he fell in love with that, too.

The back of the book had pictures of other Dahl covers, one of which was James and the Giant Peach.

When Kid #1 saw this, he was not pleased with the reminder of his unspeakable trauma, or with the idea that Dahl could somehow be responsible for it. He told me again, just so I’d be sure not to forget, that James and the Giant Peach was VERY SCARY.

“You know, Buddy, I bet the book isn’t scary,” I said. “Wasn’t it really how the people looked that upset you? If you read the book you can imagine them however you want. You’d probably enjoy it.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe,” he said. “But it’s too late now.”

He’s a fatalistic eight-year-old.

This movie got great reviews,
and I doubt it's scary to most kids.
My kid ain't most kids
This can''t even scare a McCanless.

Every parent has heard ad nauseam that reading is good and screen time is bad. I’m in no position to lecture here. But this experience gave me a new appreciation of what books can offer, beyond the whole brain cells and IQ thing. (Because let's face it, that’s been done to death.)

Kids are great little regulators. From the time they’re born, that’s one of the main things their nervous systems have to do in addition to crying and eventually taking apart electronics. They learn to regulate their emotions, regulate their expression of those emotions, regulate their responses to stimuli like sounds and sights and smells and touches. They are little regulating machines, and their imaginations are the foremen of the whole operation. They can decide how to picture something, how much to absorb, just how violent a violent scene is and just how mean a mean aunt is. A book without aid of imagination is about as engaging as a pile of paper, and as easy to put down.

Contrast that with movies and TV shows, where the always-moving pictures capture and keep their attention. My kids can’t even tear their eyes away from the televised State of the Union Address. I’m confident a transcript would not hold the same appeal unless we turned it into paper airplanes.

On screen, every detail is dramatized in a way that kids can’t shut out, and sometimes—even when you least expect it—it’s too much.

So here's my advice: If, in a moment of weakness, you decide to buy peace and quiet with television, think twice before sacrificing a great book in the process.

Now, if you'll excuse me, Kid #2 has had a bit too much Kung Fu Dino Posse...

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Just a quick post from me tonight – volcano story is due in six days (eep!). It's not nearly as far along as it should be, but then, I've always been a terrible procrastinator. I've got most of the story plotted out, but there's still a lot of work to do.  I'm not sure I'm going to be able to get it read before I have to send it in (Tuesday night at the latest), which is not ideal, but I'm going to see how it goes.

The story still needs a title. Does "Fading into Fire" sound like an interesting story title, or like I just threw darts at a dictionary?  It might not be suitable anyway (and plus alliterative titles are rather overdone).

Here's what the story has come to be about:  
Centuries after a new ice age pushed the arctic tribes to the brink of extinction, Nini's people live safe in the haven created for them by their god, Ummat.  But in recent months, Ummat's power had become unstable.  The volcano that is the heart of his power rumbles, and demons mass at the borders of the sanctuary.  When a stranger comes with claims that he has been sent by the High Gods to take the place of the ailing Ummat, the tribe fears that they have no choice but to accept the help they are offered.  Nini senses that something is not quite right with the deal, but how can she argue with the word of the High Gods? How can she make contact with Ummat when even his shaman can't make contact? And what is one woman's word against the doctrine of the heavens?

(Note: The whole thing about substituting one god for another makes much more sense in my story, but would take too long to explain here.  Well, fortunately the market doesn't require me to submit a summary.)

In this story, I've chosen to attempt to portray, for the first time, a non-European culture.  Nini and her people are loosely based off the Inuit tribes of Northern Canada and Alaska.  I've learned as much as I can in the past month, but I still wonder if I should have made the effort without proper time to research. The thing is, the story itself isn't dependent on their identity as Inuit, though the Arctic setting of the story is (I could have also gone with the Saami or Yupik, of course, but there were more resources in English available on the Inuit). 

I'm lucky enough to live in close proximity to the Geisel Library at UC San Diego.  Not only is there an enormous weatlh of books, but the design is incredible. I felt like I should have been researching spaceships!

So what do you all think?  Is it a bad idea to portray a culture that one doesn't thoroughly understand (i.e. lived in, visited, or know someone well from the culture)?  Is portraying a culture that one doesn't understand an empty exercise in multiculturalism? In this case, does my good intent triumph over whatever poor results I may produce, especially given that in my story their culture may have been modified by the Ice Age and the conditions of the sanctuary?  How can I do this better next time?

(And yes, I am seeking honest answers. I'll probably still keep the story the way it is, but I want to be sure to make good, respectful choices in the future).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It’s Queen’s Thief Week – Squee!

I’ve mentioned before what a fan I am of Megan Whalen Turner’s series, but now I get to devote a whole post to her! Chachic’s Book Nook is doing a tribute week to all things Queen’s Thief and I would be incredibly ungrateful if I didn’t add my humble bit of praise, too.

The Queen’s Thief series is comprised of four books (with two more still in the works): The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia and A Conspiracy of Kings).

It is by far my favorite MG/YA series, due in large part to the main character, Eugenides. Fallible, petulant, supremely tricksy, a coward, a hero, and an archtype of mercy  -  if you haven’t yet been introduced to the Thief, Eugenides, then any description I can give will never suffice. He is one of the most complex and surprising characters in literature today.

The series is set in a world similar to ancient Greece where three small rival nations, Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis face not only threats from each other, but also the encroachment of the powerful Mede Empire, intent on gaining a foothold on their little peninsula.

Beyond the basic background, though, I hesitate to tell you too much. Much of the brilliance of the series comes from the moments when you realize that the story you have been blithely reading and making assumptions about is not, in fact, the story that is being told. These revelations hit like lightning bolts of clarity, but on a second read, every clue was there all along.

Here's my pitch: Read The Series! (From the beginning. And stay away from spoilerish reviews before you read.)

Now, from an aspiring author’s perspective, let me tell you a few things I find amazing about Megan Whalen Turner’s work.

Characters: As I mentioned here in one of my earlier posts, Megan Whalen Turner (mwt to her fans) does a remarkable job with characterization. Every character, not just ‘the important ones,’ has motive, backstory and depth. It’s the relationships between the characters, though, that draws me to this series. No one, and no relationship, is black and white. The people have loyalties to friends, family, country and self, and these intermix to form a vibrant reality within the books.

World Building: For a MG/YA series, the world of the Queen’s Thief books is highly complex. Not the geography, or even the way the people live. Those would be familiar to anyone with a basic understanding of Greek or Roman culture. But the simplicity of the backdrop allows for more time to be spent on very twisty political machinations and very real human interactions (including one of the most complicated and satifying romances I have ever read).

Revelatory writing: I’ll admit it, I was really thinking of the Queen’s Thief series here when I listed ways to prejudice the readers opinion of events and characters. I have read and reread mwt’s books to try to see how, even though I know these characters, she is still able to make me jump to wrong conclusions and make false assumptions about their actions.

Five Years: That’s the average time between mwt’s books. I’m so glad I discovered them after the first three were out. Now there are four books and it’s been out almost two years, so only three more years to go till the next book! (Yes, that truly is the mindset of Queen’s Thief fans.) Mwt has an extremely loyal (and patient) fan base, many of whom congregate at Sounis.  They do fanart,  fanfic, and interpretive dance. They knit and wear liberated (mismatched) socks. This is possibly one of my favorite posts where the illustrator of the beautiful covers shares the collaborative process of creating them.

 So, there’s my ode. Please take the time to look into this series. The first book, The Thief, is the most MG in theme and writing, but even if you don’t think it’s your usual faire, plug away till you get to book two which is deep and sophisticated, and oh, so satisfying a read. It only gets better from there.

Thanks, mwt, for sharing your world with us.

~ Susan

* pictures from meganwhalenturner.org

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Aiming for Perfection

I’m going to warn you. This is going to get pretty nerdy. I’m almost scared to post this. Please if you’ve never been to this site, read a few other posts before making any judgments. :)

I’m writing this anyway despite my reservations because I think it is something that needs to be said even if my way of saying it is a little nerdy.

On the writing sites I frequent, I hear this advice a lot. Write the story, do an editing pass or two, then submit it, and start writing the next story. Don’t spend too much time revising a story, you learn faster by writing a new stories. I want it to be clear right now, I do think this is good advice for many writers. You can get trapped in endless revisions and editing, and the more stories you write, the better you will get. This definitely can lead to success, as I’m sure it has.


What if you feel strongly about the story? What if you can see its flaws and know how to fix them? What if you really really believe in it, know it has the potential to be publishable, but it isn’t quite there yet?

Should you send it out, give up on it, and move on? Or is it worth putting a little more work into it, rewriting, revising, and editing until you’ve done the best you can, even if it takes months or years?

I think sometimes when you have a story you really believe in, you can’t give up on it. Kathryn Stockett the bestselling author of The Help didn’t even after sixty rejections from agents, and her family and friends urging her to write something else. She believed in the book, and she kept working on it. It took her five years to finish it, but it turned out to be a best seller. J.R.R. Tolkien spent ten years writing The Lord of the Rings, and we all know how successful that story was.

But it is hard to know when you fall into the trap of eternal revision and editing. Like Leonardo da Vince said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

So how do you know when you should abandon your art?

Okay so here is the nerdy part.

I am a science geek and love graphs and stuff. So this is my theoretical graph (there is no data to support this) of editing and/or revising. While there is no data to support my theoretical graph, this is how, from my limited experiences, revisions and editing seems to go for me.

I “plotted” the quality of the manuscript (y-axis) versus the effort put in (x-axis). Please bear with me. I spent way too much time on this graph, but if you simply can’t stomach it, you can go to the asterisk at the end.*

The straight line across the graph labeled perfection is called an asymptote which means, for you non-nerds, that the curved blue line will never reach the perfection line. You can put an infinite amount of effort into a story and it will never reach perfection. You will inch closer and closer to it, but you will never reach it.

Now indulge me a little and look at the curved blue line. In the beginning (which I labeled A) the quality of the work increases greatly with just a little effort. See how steeply the curve rises at the beginning. This is when you are fixing those plot wholes, adding depth to characterization, cutting and rearranging scenes. A little (relative) effort dramatically increases the quality.

At region B, it starts to slow down. A lot more work has to go into it to see a change in quality. Notice how the curve is rounding at B. This is when the storyline is solid, and you are working on the finer editing; doing line by lines, polishing the writing, fixing the grammar sentence by sentence. It is a lot of work, and it does increase the quality, but it takes a lot more effort to do so.

Now you can fiddle endlessly with line edits. If you are staring at the same sentence for twenty minutes, taking out words just to put them back in, dithering on every word choice, you’ve reached region C where the curve is essentially a flat line with little or no change in quality despite tons of effort being done. This is where you can edit forever with very little or no significant change in your story. This is where you need to stop.

But honestly, why would you abandon your story when you are in the A or even B region? Where you can make dramatic increases in quality with little relative effort?

I think it is easy to impatient with writing. If you are like me, you have shiny new ideas piling up while you are writing, and they try to lure you away from your editing. It’s tempting to move on.

But if you really believe in the story, don’t you want to give it the best shot it has of reaching an audience?

The book industry, whether you go the traditional route or self-publish, is very competitive. I just don’t know how I can hope to succeed unless I’m submitting my very best work.

Now I’m not saying you should do this for every story. Some stories need to be abandoned earlier especially if you are not excited about it anymore or it is essentially unfixable. Nor am I saying that my way is the only way.

But sometimes there are stories that burn inside you that you really need to tell, those are the ones that you should not give up on, that you should at least aim for perfection.

Honestly, those are the only ones I want to write.


*If you really can’t stand graphs, my overall point is, at some point in editing, you are spending a lot of time fiddling with the words, but are not significantly changing the overall quality of the story. Once you’ve reached that point, that is when you abandon your story and send it out into the cold, cold world.

Monday, January 23, 2012

One in a Million Special

So I grew up with this kid Johnny Madsen. We weren't ever close friends, mostly because he was a really cute boy, and as a boy crazy girl, that meant I didn't ever talk to boys.

Logical, right.

Anyhow, I remember Johnny Madsen often because of my fifth grade teacher. One day in class she asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. Everyone raised their hand and said things like, "I want to be a doctor," or a firefighter, or a mom. I raised my hand to say that I...Sheena then Dabel... wanted to become a movie star. Luckily for me, the teacher picked on Johnny Madsen before she picked me. Because Johnny said he wanted to be in the NFL.

The teacher, (I don't remember her name, but I do remember her really horrible haircut.) then proceeded to explain why that dream was foolish. She said that in classrooms all around the country there were kids dreaming of becoming professional athletes, or actors, or singers, and it just wasn't going to happen for ninety-nine percent of them. For most of those kids, she said, the closest they are going to get to being in the NFL is to watch it on TV. Then she looked pointedly at Johnny and said, "Do you really think you are one in a million special?"

I remember this, because Johnny, this tall scrawny kid with a mess of black shiny hair and gorgeous eyes, got royally mad at the teacher. He was usually pretty quiet, but on this day, the normally soft spoken Johnny he basically yelled at the teacher and told her she was mean and dumb and wrong.

After she sent him to the principal's office, she looked around the room, "So how about the rest of you," she asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

My hand stayed hidden under my desk.

I think about her now, this nameless teacher with a bad haircut, as her voice tells me that I am wasting my time trying to become something special. I think about her as I get discouraged, and I think about her after I receive a vicious rejection.

What am I doing? Do you really think YOU are one in a million special?

And then I think about Johnny Madsen. That picture...right up there...that's of him playing in the NFL.


Now it's true, not everybody who dreams get to wake up and realize that they are living their dream. But some people do.

But the fact is,  it's not something that you just wake up to make happen. I think about the hours and effort Johnny had to put in at the gym to go from that scrawny kid to that hulking giant. I think about the hours he spent on the field, the practices, the injuries, the hits he had to stand up and walk away from. He could have quit at anytime, but he didn't. I think about the stubbornness it takes to go from one in a million who dream, to become one of the few who are ready to become selected.

Now I can't choose if I will ever be "drafted" so to speak. But I can show up. I can practice. I can prepare, and hopefully when the day comes I will be ready to say, "Pick me, Pick me."

Hopefully, by then, I'll be ready.

Really, I don't think the odds are one and a million. I think it's much closer to fifty fifty. It'll either happen, or it won't. Fifty fifty.

But it'll be my choice if I'm ready.

So... Mz... whatever your name is... I, Sheena now Boekweg, want to be a writer.

Go ahead, tell me it's not going to happen.  See if the principal can save you from my wrath.


p.s. How about you? Want to join me and say, I...[state your name] want to be...[state your dream]?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Chaos Method of Book Editing

(First of all, I'd like to thank the talented Karen for being my awesome guest blogger last week She has amazing stories about networking.)

It may sound odd, but I've decided that I ♥ boxes. We moved into our new house last Friday. At first it was as fun as Christmas to tear into the boxes to see what was inside, but now that we're finally unpacking things that aren't absolutely essential to survival, I get a little pang every time I rip open the lid.

 You see, as long as the box is still shut up tightly, the things inside can't escape and make a mess. It's a beautiful thing. When you are writing a rough draft, it's probably a good idea to keep your plot inside some kind of a box. Some things have to be 'unpacked' before others or your story won't make any sense at all.

But your plot wasn't meant to stay neatly compartmentalized. A good plot should be out there where your characters will trip over it, get so frustrated with it that they kick it and break their toes. You know things are working when plot lines start whacking into each other like pool balls.

 J.K. Rowling is an absolute master at this. If you read Harry Potter as intensely as we do in our family, you will start to notice a pattern that looks something like this:

Something exciting happens to Harry
He wants to talk about it with Ron and Hermione
Other people's plots get in the way
Daily life gets in the way
Finally he talks to them and they come up with a plan
Something exciting happens to Harry
He wants to talk about it with Ron and Hermione...

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, Harry has just finished detention with an evil hag named Delores Umbridge. When she touches the raw skin on the back of his hand, the scar on his forehead sears with pain. He hurries off to tell Ron and Hermione, but when he gets to the Gryffindor common room:

 1--Everyone is celebrating because Ron has just been made Keeper of the Gryffindor Quidditch team. Ron is too happy to discuss evil hags at the moment.

2--To make matters worse, Ron's feelings are hurt when he finds Hermione sound asleep by the fire.

3--Hermione is asleep by the fire because Fred and George have given her a potion to put her to sleep. They are testing magical joke products on first year students, and Hermione would stop them if she was awake.

4--Before Harry can explain this to Ron, Katie Bell calls Ron away to get new Quidditch robes.

5--Angelina pulls Harry aside to tell him that Ron isn't a great keeper, and she'd like Harry to help him practice.

6--Finally he wakes up Hermione, who says she's tired because she's been making hats for the house elves. After ping ponging through all these subplots, Harry finally gets the chance to tell Hermione what happened. Hermione suggests that Harry should talk to Dumbledore, but Harry is too upset at the way Dumbledore has been treating him, so the next morning, he decides to write a letter to Sirius.

7--On his way to the Owlery to mail the letter, he runs into Nearly Headless Nick who warns Harry to take a different corridor because Peeves is playing a trick in the main corridor.

8--Then Mrs. Norris, the cat, brushes past his legs.

9--He gets to the Owlery, mails a letter, sees a thestral, and runs into Cho Chang, the girl he has a crush on. Then Filch accuses Harry of being in the Owlery so he can order dungbombs. Harry wants to talk about these strange events to Ron and Hermione... And the cycle continues.

 Whose story is this, anyway? 

The whole Harry Potter series is filled with that kind of pattern. Harry spends much more time reacting to the other character's plots than he spends on his own. It could be argued that the other character's plots become his plot. Of course, the part I just summarized came from a chapter in the fifth book in the series. J.K. Rowling has had a lot of time to give her characters stories that can trip Harry up. That's the main reason every one of her books gets exponentially larger. It's harder to do in a stand-alone novel, or in the first book of a series, but it's so worth it.

I'm not privy to the inner workings of J.K. Rowling's mind, obviously. But I doubt that things happened in this order in the first draft. I imagine everything was much more compartmentalized in the beginning. One gargantuan box held Harry's story, and stacked on top of that was a box containing Hagrid's story, and another box had Fred and George's joke shop in it.

Eventually though, she was wise enough to unpack all the story ideas and let them play with each other. I imagine her thinking, "Hmm...things are going too smoothly for Harry right now. What can Filch do to mess things up? And it's probably time to move on to the next piece of Fred and George's story. And I know! Peeves is always good for at least half a page of frustration."

Wait a minute, what's a thestral?

In my imaginary first draft of Harry Potter 5, Harry didn't see thestrals while he stood in the owlery. Instead, what happened was that somewhere in the editing process, J.K. Rowling realized that she wanted thestrals to play an important part at the end of the book. So she had to fit them in to the book in several major places. She does that by creating a mystery around the thestrals. Only Harry and Luna can see them, so he fears he is going crazy. Smaller references to thestrals scattered throughout the book serve to keep them fresh in our mind so that we're not thrown off guard when they become important at the end.

 In the first draft of my own novel, Earth's Gate, a dragon and a griffin showed up in the last quarter of the book. Adding major magical elements to the last quarter of a fantasy novel is usually a bad idea, so I had to sift through my novel to find places to reference them. I added a meeting with a captive griffin to the first chapter, and a bear attack in chapter 5 got turned into a dragon attack. Then I started finding ways to add references to the creatures everywhere I turned, and pretty soon I had an unexpected sub-plot. J.K. Rowling's thought process was probably so much more organized than mine that they are barely comparable. Still, I would pay good money to get a sneak peak at her first draft. 

Ring, ring! 

 In television shows, have you ever noticed the way that phone calls come right at the end of important conversations? (This even happens in my beloved Burn Notice.) When I'm editing a story, I like to at least consider having the phone call happen at the least opportune moment. I like to think of it as the Chaos Method of Book Writing. Unpack all your boxes. Shake well. See what happens. But be sure to save your first draft. Just in case.

Check out this amazing blog post, in JK Rowling's own words.

 Do you write your subplots one at a time? Is your mind organized enough to keep them all chugging along at the right pace? If so, how do you do it? I'd love to hear your tips.

Friday, January 20, 2012

No, it Wasn't Ratatouille

Strap on your seatbelts, everyone. Today's post is a long one, has nothing to do with writing, and shouldn't be read while eating.

Thanks to an overpopulation problem of local skunks and an overly inquisitive cat, I found myself with an entire cupboard full of 48-oz cans of store-brand tomato juice. This week I made the one recipe I know that uses tomato juice: SWEET POTATO, PEANUT BUTTER, and CABBAGE STEW.

This stew is tastier than it sounds, and is one of three ways that I will eat sweet potatoes. Not as good as the pie, but darn close.

It is not, however, kid-friendly.

Last Tuesday: Stew Day
While I snarf down a huge bowlful, Kid #1 cries, gags, regurgitates, and cries some more. Kid #2 starts sympathy crying, but then realizes this is his chance to be Golden Child. So he eats every last drop, repeatedly thanking me for our delicious dinner, and casting sly, superior glances at Kid #1. John threatens snot-and-tear-covered Kid #1 with stew for breakfast, and I fill up another bowl because this is comfort food and feeding it to my children stresses me out.

While John coaches Kid #1 through his second bite (“Use your milk! Swallow it fast!”), I clean. Dishes in the dishwasher, a few more by hand, and some stacked in the sink for after the first by-hand batch is dry.

I look at the tomato juice can, which I opened with a church key opener. The recipe used 32 oz from the 48-oz can.

(True story: My novel's MC uses a church-key (punch) opener in a scene. John read it and said, “She only punched one hole.” I gave him a blank look. He said: “It won’t pour with one. You need two.” At 36, with an engineering degree, I’d never figured out the physics of the punch opener. The next time I opened a can of liquid, I couldn’t wait to make TWO holes and see how it worked. This tomato juice was my first opportunity.)
Churchkey, a.k.a. punch opener.
Yes, this is an important detail.

Back to the leftover juice: Should I save it? In what? Freeze it? I don’t drink tomato juice. Pouring it out seems wasteful, but saving it seems like a pain.

Bath and bedtime. I leave the can on the counter to deal with the kids.

Wednesday: Lunch menu? Leftover stew (for me).
I see the can in the morning. Dammit. Can’t save it now. I never finished cleaning the kitchen last night, instead crashing after the kids were in bed. Now we’re late for school, as usual. Then comes errands, and more errands... Home for lunch. Ah, leftovers.

Thursday: More leftovers for me
Chock-full of vitamins. I’m the queen.

The can has become part of the scenery. My eyes work like that. Leave something on a surface for more than 24 hours and it becomes a built-in feature. For instance, don’t all coffee tables come with three remotes, two markers, a cut-up piece of construction paper,and a pile of mail? John’s the same way, which is why I live in constant fear of drop-in friends and/or child protective services.

Friday: I ♥ Leftovers
I can’t believe I haven’t gotten rid of that can yet. But I don’t feel like opening it up and scrubbing it out right now. The juice is dried on by now and I can’t put a dirty can in the recycling. See recycling rules posted to fridge.

More leftovers for lunch. Healthy and delicious and filling, too. Proud of myself.

Saturday: Last day of leftovers...
... As good as the first!

The only thing left from that recipe is this abandoned can. Today I'll deal with it. Really.

Except, somehow, I don’t.

Can? What can?

While I take the kids to a playdate, John gets the rare urge to thoroughly clean the kitchen. The forgotten can magically re-appears in his field of vision.

He doesn’t worry over recycling. A quick rinse will do. John is relaxed about this stuff in a way I am not. I will leave a peanut butter jar in the sink for days until I finally wash it out, because I do not put dirty peanut butter jars in the recycling. I am a rule-follower: No food residue. No cardboard boxes from frozen items. No pizza boxes. John gleefully ignores these city-issued guidelines, while I religiously follow them.

We are two different kinds of messy. He’s nah-its-fine messy. I’m it-has-to-be-perfect-or-don't-do-it messy. John doesn’t really care. I care too much. We end up in the same place.

But enough analysis.

I come home with the kids, an hour to spare before dinner and nary a grocery in the house. “I’m running out for groceries,” I say.

He’s at the sink, scrubbing with uncharacteristic vigor. “Oh. Are you planning to make anything with tomato juice?”

“No, why?”

“No reason. We’re just out, is all. So if you needed some, you’d have to buy more.”

“OUT? There were, like, six cans in there.”

“Yeah, well, the whole batch was bad. I had to get rid of them.”


“I can’t tell you that.”

He’s giving me this look, this mouse trapped in a cage with a weasel look—I know that look because I’ve seen a mouse trapped with a weasel before—and I can tell he really does want to say something but he’s also hoping against all rational hope that I’ll take his word for it and just go shopping.

That is so not happening.

I drop my keys back in the jar by the door. Stare at him. He stares back. I’m assessing him. He’s backing into the corner, the way the mouse does. Eyes wide. The only way a weasel can attack a mouse in that position is head-on. And the weasel doesn’t want to, because he’ll get bitten, but ultimately this game has to end.

Hang up my purse. Hands on my hips. “Spill it. Now.”

He sighs.

The Confession
He rinsed the can. Rinsing it with just the two punch holes was slow, but he didn’t feel like getting out the big can opener. Until the water stopped flowing and he saw something blocking a hole. Something like... FUR.

There was no way around it. He had to open the can all the way.

What he found was the headless, tailless, but still recognizable form of a RAT. Possibly a very large mouse. But most likely a rat.

I’m laughing a little, in a completely insincere way that’s utterly out of my control. “You’re making this up.”

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Honey,” I say, “this really isn’t funny. Stop joking. I’m begging you.”

“I didn’t want to tell you, but then what if you needed tomato juice? I couldn’t keep the other cans, not after.... I just had to throw it all away.” I see the green undertones in his face.

“But... But I used that to make the stew. We all ate the stew.”

“I know.” He swallows, his Adam’s apple the only movement between us.

“So then it crawled in one of the holes,” I say. My stomach clenches. “A rat came in the house. Did you leave the door open? Someone left the door open.” My eyes are starting to water. I’m getting that trembly lip. “Shit, I’m the worst housekeeper in the world.” Hyperventilation. Dizzy. Need to breathe slowly. Heart hurts.

Rattus norvegicus, or common sewer rat
“No way it crawled in,” he says. “It was only parts... No head or tail. Mostly skin and fur. Had to have been there all along.”

“But we ate the stew.”

“I know.”

“We made the kids eat the stew.”

“I know.”

“Kid #1 cried.”

“I know.”

“I ate leftovers all week.”

Silence. He goes back to scrubbing the sink, powerless to make this better.

I kick off my shoes. “I can’t enter a store right now.” (My mind is flooded with images of rats crawling all over the canned goods section. My semi-dormant rat phobia is  awakening like a great and terrible beast in my psyche.) “I’m going to the bedroom to lie down and cry. Will you order a pizza?”

His shoulders slump. “Yeah,” he says.

They can never, ever know.
(But we can tell copyright-free
kid from Microsoft Images.)
We don’t even have to discuss the fact that the kids can never, ever, ever know about this. We will lose all clean-your-plate credibility if they know we force-fed them rat stew. So it is our secret, our shared burden as parents.

Facebook friends insist we notify the FDA. The tomato juice should be recalled. We have to take the carcass to the store. Someone should be testing it. We have to FOLLOW UP.

The next night, John and I are drowning in guilt. The rat is in the outside garbage now, and tomorrow is trash day. We have agreed that I must never, ever see this bit of flesh because I am not strong enough. Sometimes you just have to accept your limitations. So our next action will be up to John.

I convince him that it's our civic duty to report the rat. He drinks three glasses of wine, dons some latex gloves, and opens up the sealed trash that contained the carcass. He seals it in layers of foil and plastic, then puts it in the freezer.

Neither one of us wants this anywhere near our food. But where else do you store a dead body? It’s Southern California. We can’t rely on outdoor temperatures to keep the thing fresh. It’s in an isolated corner, tucked behind a long-expired bin of blue cornmeal. I have no idea why I ever bought that blue cornmeal, but it will go when the rat goes.

We still haven’t made the call. John doesn’t want to have the rat conversation in his work cubicle. I can’t call because I’m still convinced it's karmically my fault. Plus, the body is not in good shape. John had tossed it on top of uneaten oatmeal, and then had to perform some sort of surgery to separate the “clean” part from the oatmeal-crusted part. I think that may have been where the third glass of wine came in.

At least my husband makes a happy drunk. He was great company when it was done.

Because everyone loves a hopeful ending
Once upon a time, I read seven Black Dagger Brotherhood J.R. Ward romances in the space of a week. John seemed to resent my obsession, saying it portrayed men as an absurdly unrealistic and unhealthy ideal. I figured he was insecure about the ginormous muscled heroes who were all ass-kicking and alpha maleness. I told him I was smart enough to know the difference between fantasy and reality.

And I am. Real-life romance is the guy who will take care of the rat. The guy who won’t let you see it, who really doesn’t want to tell you, who’ll go back into the trash even if he can’t do it sober. The guy who’ll listen to you cry about how this is fate’s punishment for your horrible housekeeping, and hug you and say don’t be silly, and look at our beautiful children, they’re fine. Books and fantasies are fun, but I can’t imagine giving a rat’s ass about a monosyllabic lump of muscle in real life.

Nope. Real world heroes don’t need life-or-death drama to spring to action. A rat in a can of tomato juice will do. And I’m swept off my feet all over again.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sorting through slush

I'm very proud to be a part of the editorial team over at Flash Fiction Online.  I'm a slush editor, which means that when stories are submitted, our editor-in-chief assigns half of them to me, and half to the other slush editor.  It's my job to check stories for compliance with our submission guidelines, assign them to slush readers, interpret/compile votes, and then pass the lucky few on to the winnowing process for final decisions.

Anyway, in hopes that my many, many, many hours of reading slush could be of some use to aspiring writers, I humbly offer my perspective on the slush process.  Since I could go on for pages and pages about slush in general and writing flash-fiction length stories in particular, I'll just stick to one topic.  Today: tips on submitting your stories, why not to worry about cover letters, and why it's important to always be respectful.

General disclaimers: these are all my opinions, and not necessarily representative of Flash Fiction Online or it's staff (except the part about reading the submission guidelines. I think we all agree on that.)

Tip #1:  Read the guidelines.  
Then read them again.  Finally, before you submit, check them one more time. I know how it is.  It's 10:30pm, you have a big meeting at work tomorrow, and you still need to shower, and you have ten minutes to figure out how to use this submission software and get your story in.  But please, take that extra few minutes to read the guidelines.  We helpfully summarized the most important tips at the end, and believe me, there are important reasons why we included each and every one of them. In the end, it's all about respect.  Do you respect us enough to take those extra few minutes to read the guidelines?

Tip #2. Yes, some guidelines are flexible. 
If you're not sure that your story meets the submission guidelines, send it anyway – but put a note in your cover letter.  This lets me know that you're paying attention, and didn't just completely skim the part of the guidelines that told you we only publish stories with a PG-13 rating.  Other guidelines are not flexible, by the way, but we make clear what those are (don't make me reject your 497 word story.  I know it seems nitpicky, but on the other hand, you couldn't think of three extra words?)

Tip #3: Don't sweat the cover letter.  
Submitting short stories is very different from submitting a novel to agents, for example. Do not include a summary of your story unless the magazine asks for it. Don't be overly chatty; think of this as a business transaction. Be polite. Be concise.  And for the love of all that's holy, do not degrade yourself or your story in the cover letter.  Saying things like "I can do better than this," or "I'm new at this so I'm sure it's terrible," does not make you sound like a professional.  Frankly, it's disrespectful.  We put a lot of time and effort into the 'zine; please do us the respect of sending us stories into which you've put time and effort.   

Tip #4: Proper manuscript format is your friend. 
Why? Because it's easy to read, and because it lets me know that you care enough about your craft to know what's important.  And yes, courier truly is easier to read. As a counter point, please don't be creative with font face or font size, or turn your page horizontal to make yourself look different.  It's annoying, not cute. I can't state enough that a good story stands out on its own. 

Tip #5: Being memorable can be a good thing.
When Sheena posted about her work as a slush reader, she brought up something I'd never heard before – that editors apparently remember authors of stories they hate. But in my case, there are only two things that make me remember an author:
            -they were extremely, unnecessarily rude
-they write a story that's so fantastically amazingly awesome that I fall in love with it.  I love it so much that I'm memorizing your name and watching for it in the submission queue.  It doesn't happen very often – I have… mmmm…. three or four names memorized right now.
Another thing - if you received a positive review from us before - particularly if one of your stories went to winnowing - let us know in your cover letter. It certainly won't hurt. 

Tip #6: Don't worry if you have no prior publications.  
No, seriously.  Really, seriously truly.  I've read thousands of stories and thousands of cover letters by this point (not exaggerating; I believe I'm close to 2000 at this point).  And here is one thing that I've found to be absolutely, positively true: prior professional publications or awards are not a good predictor of whether or not the submitted story is of good quality.
I have a few hypotheses as to why.   First, very few writers are 100 percent consistent in quality.  Second, I don't know when in the career a writer wrote this particular story.  Third, flash fiction is a difficult art.  And I'm not exaggerating – it's not easy to tell a concise, compelling story in 1000 words or fewer. 

Tip #7: Don't be upset by form rejections. 
A form rejection doesn't mean I hated your story.  It just means that it's 10:30 at night and I have a big meeting tomorrow and I haven't showered yet.   

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask.  And if you have anything you'd like me to discuss in a future post, let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Easy Peasy - Newb!

 I think to get to the point of this post I'm going to have to start with some background first. You see, I've only been writing  for about two years (on my second writing anniversary coming up in a few months, I’ll tell you the story of how the American Red Cross almost killed me and how Jason Bourne saved my life – or at least jump started my writing career). Believe it or not, before that event there had been nada, zilch, not a creative word from my brain since high school.

Because of my fledgling status as a writer, I often feel insecure when I post about writing - like people are rolling their eyes saying, “Sheesh, Newb! I knew that a decade ago, at least!” Which is probably the truth (yes, even you there checking in from Malaysia – you know more than me). You’ve all just been too kind to say anything.

I’ve tried my best, though, to learn the craft of writing and practice, practice, practice. And now I find myself in possession of a bright, shiny manuscript. Or a stack of scribbled pages. Or a pile of hogwash, depending on how I feel the day you ask me about it. My novel has everything it needs to be a good story – a boy and a girl and a setting and some conflict and a few bad guys thrown in for good measure.

But what it really needs is a good editing. And editing is killing me (even now, just thinking about writing this post about editing I feel the urge to take a break and go watch another episode of Burn Notice).  In every stage of writing I’ve gone through I’ve thought, ‘Oh, it will be so much easier when I’m doing X,Y, or Z.’ If I’m brainstorming, outlining will be easy. When I’m outlining, I think the actual writing will be easier. And now that the writing’s done – well, editing isn’t easier; it’s dang hard.

 What I’d really love to do is turn this post over to all of you who know what you’re doing so you can share some hints on how you edit successfully – I could use the help.

Maybe to jump start the conversation, I’ll share with you my woefully Newb understanding of editing:

First, begin with examining the big arcs. Are your characters and their character progressions compelling? Does the storyline have enough meat to carry the tale to the end? Have you got your secondary storylines all tucked in at the right places? Does it all make sense? What are the gaping holes that need patching?

Second, look at each scene. Does it move the story forward, reveal information or help the reader connect with the characters? (technically scenes should do all these)

Lastly, look at sentence structure and word choice. Are sentences of varying lengths and construction? Have those pesky adverbs and weak words been culled? Does it flow smoothly when read out loud? Does it really say what you think it says? (Outside eyes are often a must on this part.) And, hardest of all for me, how’s your grammar and punctuation? (Me and commas - we’re not friends.)

Technically that seems like a straight forward plan. The hard part of writing is done, right? So editing should be easy peasy, right? Not so. Here are a few other things I’ve picked up on this learning curve from Hades. Netflix Streaming is not a writer’s friend. Chocolate might be my friend, but it is not the friend of my waistline. The thesaurus is only my friend if it doesn’t take half an hour to find that one special word. My husband remains my best friend even when his shoulder gets soggy from me crying on it.

And the number one thing I’ve learned about editing – start at the top of the above list, not the bottom. Do NOT begin with making pretty sentences because you will end up killing them (and kill most of your writing time, too). Get the plot in order, get the scenes in order, and then get the words in order.

Easy peasy.  (And there’s still probably time for Burn Notice, too.)
How do you successfully edit? (Please share. Please!)

~ Susan

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Romanticizing the Stalker

The internet is overflowing with articles accusing Twilight and Hush Hush and many other paranormal romances of romanticizing stalkers and abusive relationships. People seem genuinely concerned that a generation of girls is going to seek out unhealthy abusive relationships because Edward watched Bella sleep and removed her engine from her car.

Some of these YA paranormal romances want to have these dark, mysterious, dangerous heroes, but they don’t want to show the consequences. There is some fantasy involved in having a dark, dangerous hero without the actual danger. So these unseemly behaviors get glossed over or even romanticized.

But is this really as big of a deal as those articles on the internet make it to be?

Don’t get me wrong. I understand how serious and frightening being stalked is. I would never want to make light of it, but there are other stories that glorify other horrible behaviors like killing.

The movie the Matrix is one. I loved that movie (the first one, the sequels not so much), but it was extremely violent. Some people have blamed it and other violent movies and video games for being somewhat responsible for very tragic school shootings.

I understand that there is power in stories, that they can inspire and uplift and change minds, but I’m not sure if every story has that power.

Some stories like Twilight and The Matrix are really just for fun. They are not meant to be groundbreaking, world-changing novels. I don’t think the teenaged audiences are as impressionable as others make them out to be. Most people know the difference between reality and make-believe long before they are teenagers, and if they don’t, then there is a much bigger problem there.

I honestly don’t think that the reason someone gets into an abusive relationship can ever be simplified to “I read Twilight as a teenager.”

I don’t know. Am I wrong?

But I do know that I don’t like censorship in any form. Claiming that some novels are dangerous for impressionable teenagers is a slippery slope because it opens up the flood gates to keep some very important and powerful books from teen readers just because some people don’t agree with the world view presented in the story.

I believe we should trust the teen readers and teach them to think deeply and critically about what they read. Let them make up their own minds.

There was no YA section when I was a teen, and when I think about some of the things I read….

For example, when I was fifteen, I was obsessed with The Phantom of the Opera. I listened to the music from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical all the time, went to LA to see the play, and read the original novel by Gaston Leroux. I loved the story, and I still do.

But talk about a stalker.

The Phantom is unquestionably manipulative, abusive, controlling, and a murderer. But he is also isolated, rejected by society and his own mother because of a physical deformity. He is brilliant, a musician, a genius. Cold and callous, and yet deeply wounded. In my opinion, he is one of the most fascinating characters ever.

There is also something deeper in that story than an obsessive, controlling love.

In the book, we come to understand The Phantom, and by sympathizing with a villain, who does unspeakable things, we see that people aren’t born evil. They are twisted by how they are abused by society.

But his tragic past in no way excuses his behavior. He does not win. He does not get the girl. He is only redeemed when he gives up what he wants most. In the end, he learns that if you really, truly love something, you can’t trap, manipulate, or control it; you have to let it go.
I understood this as a teenager, and I don’t like the idea of keeping powerful stories like this from teenagers because it could be interpreted as romanticizing the stalker.

So what do you think?

Do you think that romanticizing the stalker is harmful to teenage girls and boys?

Do you feel that YA authors have a responsibility to present healthy romantic relationships or at least not glorify unhealthy ones?

And how do you really decide what is a healthy relationship?

I’m very curious because I've been fascinated by darker characters like The Phantom, Heathcliff, and Raskolnikov ever since I was in high school.


ETA: This post was inspired by this converstaion on Hatrack: http://www.hatrack.com/cgi-bin/ubbwriters/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=007142;p=0&r=nfx